David Matthews composer

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Elgar's Falstaff: a Comparative Analysis

September 2006

Elgar gave Falstaff the title 'symphonic study' [1], having first tried out and rejected 'symphonic poem' and 'character study' [2]. He writes in his analytical essay on the work [3] "If we take the word 'study' in literary use and meaning, the composer's intention will be sufficiently indicated." [4] So far as I know, this is the first use of the term 'symphonic study' [5]. Elgar's title is carefully chosen, though he might have settled for the more widely employed 'symphonic poem' instead, the translation of 'Sinfonische Dichtung', a term that originated with Liszt. It is significant, however, that at no point did Elgar consider calling Falstaff a symphony, the term that the mature composer used exclusively for an abstract work in four movements, following the classical model. Falstaff by contrast is a single movement work with a detailed literary programme derived from Shakespeare's Henry IV and Henry V. It follows the course and eventual dissolution of Sir John Falstaff's friendship with Prince Hal, the future Henry V, and ends with Falstaff's decline into death after his dismissal by the new king.

The distinction between symphony and symphonic poem preoccupied many of Elgar's contemporaries, notably Sibelius, Mahler and Strauss. Sibelius began his orchestral career with his Kullervo Symphony, which he described as a 'symphonic poem for soloists, chorus and orchestra' and which Robert Layton has compared to Mahler's 'Resurrection' Symphony [6], and went on to write seven numbered symphonies, nine tone poems (his preferred term), the Four Legends, which are also tone poems, and the 'symphonic fantasia', Pohjola's Daughter, which is the nearest he came to a piece like Falstaff, because it follows a particular story (from the Kalevala) much more literally than his other tone poems. The Seventh Symphony was first conceived as a 'symphonic fantasia', no doubt because it was a single movement piece, unlike any other of Sibelius's symphonies; but it certainly is a symphony, whereas Tapiola, following on from it, is not: that piece, designated a 'tone poem', is a monothematic, monotonal set of variations, even though much of the music has symphonic power.

Mahler, after beginning in a not too dissimilar way to Sibelius with a dramatic cantata, Das Klagende Lied, was for a time uncertain if his first orchestral works were in fact symphonies. His First Symphony started life as a symphonic poem called Titan, after a novel by the French Romantic writer Jean Paul; the first movement of the Second Symphony was at one point an independent symphonic poem called Todtenfeier ('Funeral Rites'). He then became exclusively a symphonist, writing no more symphonic poems. His Second and Third Symphonies, however, are wildly unorthodox both in form and content, and only his Sixth Symphony conforms to the classical model favoured by Elgar. Many of Mahler's problems with contemporary critics stemmed from this unorthodox approach to symphonic form. If he had chosen to call his early symphonies symphonic poems, he might have had the same success during his lifetime as did Strauss.

Strauss, following Liszt, wrote no abstract symphonies apart from two juvenile works, but instead his renowned series of tone poems (he too preferred 'Tondichtung' to 'Sinfonische Dichtung') between 1888 and 1914. He called the last two - Sinfonia Domestica and Eine Alpensinfonie - 'symphonies' but, like their predecessors, they are single-movement works with programmes. Don Quixote, of all Strauss's works the one closest to Falstaff, was designated 'Fantastische Variationen über ein Thema ritterlichen Characters'. Like Falstaff, Don Quixote has a highly detailed literary programme; its hero is characterised by a theme that seems uncannily to summon up the essence of his personality; he goes through various adventures, some humiliating; at one point his squire falls asleep while the Don muses idealistically; he dies at the end a broken old man, to music of great poignancy. All these features find their parallel in Falstaff.

Falstaff has no real precedent in Elgar's output. The 'Concert-Overture' In the South comes closest, for this of all Elgar's orchestral works is the most Straussian in sound, and has elements of a tone poem in its general evocation of Italy and its particular descriptive passages such as the grand clash of Roman arms at its centre. In Falstaff, everything on one level is descriptive. In his analytical essay Elgar goes carefully through the score noting everywhere connections with particular lines of Shakespeare. The listener should, however, bear in mind Elgar's caveat in his essay: "Some lines quoted from the plays are occasionally placed under the themes to indicate the feeling to be conveyed by the music; but it is not intended that the meaning of the music, often varied and intensified, shall be narrowed to a corollary of these quotations only." [7] He is still more insistent in a letter to Ernest Newman, shortly before the premiere in 1913: "I only want you to understand - as I think you will already - that Falstaff (as programme says) is the name but Shakespeare - the whole of human life - is the theme". [8] And, as several commentators have remarked, Falstaff is as much about Elgar himself, his feelings about growing old and his fears - underlined by the cool response to the work's premiere - that he was beginning to lose the admiration of his public, than about Shakespeare's tragicomic knight. Finally, it is quite possible to listen to Falstaff as if it were an abstract symphonic work: its overall shape broadly corresponds to a one-movement symphony with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda. It is in this way, unlike Elgar in his account, that I shall try to analyse the piece, although in many places it will be impossible to ignore the programme.

Although Elgar's full title refers to a 'Symphonic study in C minor', that key is not evident at the start. The piece begins with the main Falstaff theme, unaccompanied: the scholarly Elgar quotes Maurice Morgann's Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir J.Falstaff (1777) to indicate the picture of Falstaff this theme is intended to evoke, "in a green old age, mellow, frank, gay, easy, corpulent, loose, unprincipled, and uxorious" [9]; it rollicks along in typically Elgarian long/short note values. The theme is pivoted on the note G with which it begins, ends and rests at its mid-point, but its tonal stability is undermined by the series of descending augmented fourths by which it progresses. The first three bars (plus the upbeat) contain ten of the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. What key is it in? It could be G major or minor, or G could be felt as the dominant of C minor, as would be appropriate. In fact G turns out to be the mediant of E flat major, the key in which the next theme appears (2nd of fig.1), though this too is chromatically inflected to a degree that make its tonality hard to pin down. This theme evokes Falstaff's wit, and its melodic shape is highly adventurous with its spectacular upward leaps of a 13th and downward cascades (3rd of fig.2) that imitate Falstaff's laughter and are very similar to those at the opening of Verdi's Falstaff, surely not coincidentally [10]. The opening theme returns, with trilling descending harmony above it which sounds like a preparation for C minor, but instead the music cadences again into E flat and Prince Hal's main theme (fig.4), one of Elgar's great swaggering tunes and placed so that it appears the culmination of everything that has happened so far. This theme and the opening theme and are linked: the first four notes of Hal's theme are notes 1,3,2 and 5 of Falstaff's, so it is as if Hal is Falstaff's idealisation of his younger self or, as Jerrold Northrop Moore puts it: "now the hero looked backward through his friend as if to a strength he himself no longer possessed." [11]

The repeat of the 'Hal' theme leads on to the next Falstaff theme (fig.7), showing him as "cajoling and persuasive". [12] It is in E minor, and its contours are close to the 'Hal' theme - more diatonic and less angular than the first two Falstaff themes. Those two themes make a reappearance before Prince Hal's tune returns again in still more glowing colours and sweeps without pause into the opening Falstaff theme: the prince and his companion are united here for the only time in the work in a continuous, exuberant musical line which ends with a thrice repeated proclamation of the last five notes of the opening theme, at their initial pitch ending on G and still not resolving to C minor, the key of which we have heard nothing yet in almost 150 bars.

We are now at the end of what might be called the exposition, though its brevity in respect of the whole (a total of 1427 bars) makes it seem more like an introduction. The next, much longer, section (just over 600 bars) is a kind of scherzo, based for the most part on entirely new material. The short phrases that make its initial new theme (fig.17), again in shifting tonality (moving from G flat major to B flat) are all developed extensively, together with a motive Elgar associates with the Tavern women (3 before fig.18), derived from the previous theme and the last three notes the first Falstaff theme; a chromatic melody (fig.19), beginning in a somewhat obscured F minor, representing Falstaff singing with his cronies; and another theme for Falstaff himself (fig.25), which "exhibits his boastfulness and colossal mendacity" [13]. It is an extraordinary theme: one almost wonders if Elgar had been looking at Webern. This is certainly 'Elgar the Progressive' [14], and in fact almost all the thematic material, and the harmony, in Falstaff is 'progressive' and belies contrary opinions such as Christopher Marks's "By the standards of much twentieth-century composition, Elgar's style advanced little. He was a conservative all his life." [15] On the contrary, Elgar was not even a conservative at the beginning of the century: so far as his musical language is concerned he was in the vanguard - if one has to use such terms - alongside his contemporaries Sibelius, Mahler and Strauss.

The three-flat key signature persists, for no apparent reason, as there is still no sign of C minor and the music weaves from key to key in a remarkably unstable way. At length, at fig.32, a new theme is introduced, a "cheerful, out-of-the-door, ambling theme" [16] in long/short rhythm, introducing the 'Gadshill' episode, and at last we are in C, but it is C major, not minor. At fig.37, after a silent bar, the music finally reaches C minor, but in the most unobtrusive way, with rushing scales on pianissimo violins and violas and muted horn calls. This passage extends for 30 bars before the music sweeps off again into new territory and new tonalities. The 'Gadshill' episode has sounded like a trio to the preceding scherzo, but it isn't. This is not a classical scherzo; its shape is derived from the programme: a series of narrative episodes based on the Falstaff scenes in both parts of Henry IV. In fact, the 'ambling' tune acts rather like a rondo theme, which makes various reappearances, usually in its original key of C major. The next two episodes are, first, an energetic fugato on the 'boasting' theme (fig.44) superbly written in Elgar's most robust manner, which leads into a fully-scored repeat of the 'Falstaff singing' theme (fig.48); then another expansive trio-like section of the women's motive, in G minor (fig.49). That key is now the main tonality for more than 200 bars, extending through two renditions of the 'boasting' theme on solo bassoon (fig.62; 5 before fig.72) to the graphic passage depicting Falstaff falling asleep (figs.73-5), which ends with a drawn-out statement of the main Falstaff theme on the cellos and a quiet cadence into G major at the bar before fig.76, the work's central point.

Elgar must have been familiar with the passage in Strauss's Don Quixote where Sancho Panza falls asleep to tuba and contrabassoon glissandi, and he may have deliberately tried here to outdo the master of realistic imitation. While his squire sleeps, Quixote muses and summons up idealised visions of Dulcinea; Falstaff on the other hand dreams nostalgically of his boyhood when he was page to the Duke of Norfolk. Both passages are scored mostly for strings: Elgar's is for strings with harp and some woodwind at the end, in a straightforward A minor, in strong contrast to all the chromaticism of the previous music. The ascending scale fragments out of which the solo violin's tune (fig.77) is built link it with Falstaff's 'cajoling' theme, while its 5th, 6th and 7th notes, G, B C are close to being an exact inversion of the last three notes of the main Falstaff theme (it would be exact if the B was flattered). At the end of this 45-bar interlude the music comes to a halt on a cadence into A minor; then there is a pause and the new section (fig.81) begins abruptly with the 'wit' motive. It is not one of Elgar's happiest transitions: his method of composing in isolated paragraphs occasionally results in somewhat violent shifts of mood, as here.

The new section describes Falstaff's march with his ragged army of recruits, and is firmly in C minor. The recent emphasis on G, then, has been an enormously protracted dominant to what is at last acknowledged as the main key. In symphonic terms, this can be thought of as the recapitulation. Fanfares summon the merry knight from the tavern and its women (fig.84). The theme (6 before fig.86) describing "the martial gait of the scarecrow army" [17] that Falstaff has assembled, is a derivation from his main theme, as is the lovely E flat major string phrase (fig.98) which, following the hectic battle scene (figs.90-96), with its characteristic descending chromatic scales in the brass, calms the music down as Falstaff and his friends approach the fields and apple trees of Shallow's orchard. This leads to another C major repeat of the 'Gadshill' theme, bringing the music gently to the second A minor episode, marked in the score 'Gloucestershire, Shallow's orchard'. This is based on two new ideas, the first (fig.102) a dance for woodwind with timpani and tambourine, related to the previous interlude's solo violin tune; the second (fig.105) a meditative near-inversion of the E flat theme. Another abrupt transition follows this interlude: excitable phrases herald the announcement that Prince Hal is now King Henry V (his theme in a brilliant E major) and Falstaff rejoices in the news (vigorous two-part counterpoint with the 'boasting' theme in the bass).

The final section now begins, again in a clear C minor, with a new theme for the king (fig.115), a "symbol of his stern, military character". [18] Its contours sound familiar, as it is related to three of the Falstaff themes: to the last four notes of the opening theme, to the second theme in its opening rising scale fragment and upward leap, and also the 'cajoling' theme. The mood is similar to the Pomp and Circumstance marches, and there is even a little trio at fig.119. So in what might be considered as the second part of the recapitulation, all elements of Falstaff dissolve in the dazzling presence of the new king, who appears in triumph at fig.127 with the most splendid presentation of his theme, grandioso (not, perhaps surprisingly, nobilmente: Elgar's favourite term is absent from Falstaff). The main Falstaff theme follows, for the first time in C minor, fortissimo, and there is a pregnant pause before the knight's cruel dismissal, with the 'cajoling' theme in its original E minor and the 'boastful' theme on solo cello both now sounding rather feeble in the face of the stern king's theme. The royal march dies away in the distance and the coda begins, portraying Falstaff's decay into old age with great poignancy, with fragments of his themes (figs.139-41) prefacing a touching passage for muted strings based on the meditative orchard theme (fig.141), which as noted before is also close to the main Falstaff theme, with its chromaticisms smoothed out. The prince's theme is heard most tenderly, again on muted strings (fig.144). The model for this coda must surely have been Don Quixote , with its eloquent and affecting music for solo cello. Perhaps because of this, Elgar gives nothing to solo strings, reserving his own elegiac cello music for his next orchestral work; rather the whole string section, muted, bears the weight of the melodic material. Elgar is able to plumb still greater emotional depths, I feel, than Strauss, and this coda is one of his supreme achievements.

As in Don Quixote, the last melodic phrase in Falstaff before the hero's death is for solo clarinet, beginning with a rising octave - still aspirational if it can no longer reach to a 13th - and its last four notes are the last four notes of the opening theme with notes two and three reversed. Falstaff dies to a soft, sustained C major chord on muted brass. This was Elgar's original conclusion to the work (see the reproduction of the original last page of the full score manuscript in Christopher Kent's essay [19]), but he changed his mind and added a clinching statement of the king's theme, moving from E minor to A minor and preceded by a roll on muffled side drum, which re-enters on the A minor chord and fades away to bar of silence and a single quiet pizzicato chord. It is a chord of C major, but E and G are only played by the violas, the other strings (plus bassoons and contrabassoon) sounding only C, so that the effect is an exactly appropriate combination of finality and fragility.

The whole score of Falstaff shows Elgar at his most eloquent and also his most adventurous, so it is hardly surprising that early audiences were somewhat bewildered by it. The tonal plan, beginning in E flat major, finding a mid-course stability in G minor before reaching its declared main key of E flat's relative minor, C, is one of a comedy that turns to tragedy. For much of the first 500 bars the tonality is remarkably fluid: the music rarely stays in one key for more than a few bars without change. Only in the second half of the work does it settle down. Although Falstaff is Elgar's most tonally advanced work, this was not a new departure: there are passages in the Second Symphony that are equally unstable, for instance the second subject of the first movement (fig.13), and others where the melodic writing is just as 'progressive', for instance the 'ghost' passage in the first movement's development (figs.33-5) which is recalled in the scherzo. After Falstaff, Elgar continued to pursue a 'progressive' path in his chamber music, notable the outer movements of the String Quartet, which at times sound like the Schoenberg's first two quartets; while the Cello Concerto, in general a more backward-looking work, nonetheless has some exceptionally disruptive chromaticism in the coda of its finale.

Falstaff is not a symphony: Elgar's own title is punctiliously correct. Its form is hard to categorize; it is perhaps more like a huge scherzo than anything else, punctuated by slower episodes (though none of them very slow, or very extended). It is certainly symphonic, under Hans Keller's useful definition of symphonism as "large-scale integration of contrasts" [20], exhibiting a range of superb melodic ideas, dramatic changes of mood and tempo, and a finely controlled overall shape. It has a strong claim to be considered Elgar's greatest work.

[1]    Elgar's full title, as given at the premiere at the Leeds Festival in October 1913, was 'Symphonic study for orchestra, in C minor, with Two Interludes in A minor'.
[2]    See Christopher Kent: 'Falstaff, Elgar's Symphonic Study', in Edward Elgar: Music and Literature, ed. Raymond Monk, Scolar Press, Aldershot, 1993, p.84.
[3]    First published in The Musical Times, September 1913, and later reprinted separately by Elgar's publisher Novello. The reader will benefit from studying Elgar's analysis alongside this present one.
[4]    Edward Elgar: Falstaff, Analytical Study by the Composer, Novello, London,1913, p.3.
[5]    A number of composers have used the title subsequently, including Malcolm Arnold, Gunther Schuller and Robert Simpson.
[6]    Robert Layton: Sibelius (The Master Musicians), 4th edition, Macmillan, London, 1992, p.148.
[7]    Elgar, op.cit., pp. 6-7.
[8]    Jerrold Northrop Moore: Edward Elgar, Letters of a Lifetime, Oxford, 1990, p.263.
[9]    Elgar, op.cit., p.6.
[10]    I am indebted to Anthony Payne for pointing this out to me.
[11]    Jerrold Northrop Moore: Edward Elgar, a Creative Life, Oxford, 1984, p.645.
[12]    Elgar, op.cit., p.7.
[13]    Elgar, op.cit., p.7.
[14]    The title of an essay by Hans Keller, in Essays on Music, ed. Christopher Wintle, Cambridge, 1994, pp.63-7. The title, as Keller says, is "a variation on Schoenberg's 'Brahms the Progressive'."
[15]    Christopher Mark: 'The later orchestral music (1910-1934)' in The Cambridge Companion to Elgar, ed. Daniel M. Grimley and Julian Rushton, Cmabridge, 2004, p.170.
[16]    Elgar, op. cit., p.9.
[17]    Elgar, op.cit., p.12.
[18]    Elgar, op.cit., p.7.
[19]    Elgar, op.cit., p.91.
[20]    Hans Keller: 'Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart' in The Symphony, volume 1, ed. Robert Simpson, Penguin, 1966, p.52.